Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Y Wladfa - Homeland

In 1865 the Mimosa lifted anchor in Liverpool. She was a back-up ship, rotten and hurriedly prepared. But she was full of hope, filled with Welsh men, women and children leaving for the other side of the world, escaping the economic depression, in the hope of creating a new Wales.

They’d been beguiled into making the voyage by Michael Jones, a non-conformist preacher who provided a beacon of hope for those in the coal industry, faced with increasing English cultural and economic oppression. That he knew little about the ‘promised’ land or its agricultural capability, no one seemed to notice.

After two months journeying, four deaths, two births and a marriage, the Mimosa landed on a bleak beach on a western peninsula of the Southern Cone. Today it's known as Puerto Madryn.

But there were no verdant fields, just a vast arid steppe of stone and rock. The largest desert in the Americas.

Promisingly for the Welsh, the new Argentine government, keen to establish some control over the wild southern region of their country, were prepared to offer them a hundred square miles. At the time, the Welsh didn't know the real reasons the government were so willing to relinquish territory. This would come later. In the form of conflict and accord with natives and the realization that they were taming the steppe on behalf of the nascent argentine government.

Creating Y Wladfa

Life for the first settlers was extremely hard and even the birth of the first Welsh child in Patagonia, Mary Humphries, did little to dispel the belief of the settlers that they had made a mistake in coming to such a desolate, inhospitable location.

The hardship was compounded by the fact that most of the immigrants had come from the South Wales coalfields and mines. Farming, even on good land, was anathema to them. So farming the  Patagonian scrub was akin to asking an Argentine gaucho to create a coal mine.

Because the Welsh weren’t accustomed to hunting, they had to develop good relations with the Teheulches, native Indians, who taught them how to catch the guanaco, rhea, and other sources of food. The very people the Argentine government hoped they would displace became their trading allies.

By the year 1875 the town of Gaiman was established, and the end of the hardship was in sight.

150 years later, the National Assembly for Wales has been involved in promoting the connection, and there around 45,000 Welsh speakers still in Patagonia, principally in Chubut.

Seven hundred people of all ages are currently learning Welsh in Chubut, and the BBC's Welsh language internet service, BBC Cymru'r Byd, has a section devoted to forging links between schools in Wales and schools in Patagonia.

Walk into Gaiman now, and you'll hear Welsh on the street and in the shops, and you can take Welsh tea and scones in the tearooms, rather than Argentine empanadas in the panaderias.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Salta Flying Visit

The Northwest of Argentina is completely different to anything you would ever have thought. The mountains here are wilder and much less travelled than anywhere else along the border, no wonder why today it’s possible still to enjoy the ruins of what once were the cities of ancient civilizations, as if their people had never left.

We decided to enjoy the breathtaking landscapes that this land offers and our first stop was the spectacular colonial city of Salta.
The past and history of “Salta La Linda” is palpable in every plaza, building and face. Each time you walk through the street you can breathe their fascinating culture, which will take you back beyond colonial times.
You will need a couple of days to spend in the city visiting museums, markets and of course to delight in the traditional local food such as tamales, humitas and locro for which Salta is famous.

A little bit of history: The city was founded in 1582 becoming the most important administrative centre in Argentina, this allowed the region to become very wealthy.
During the 19th century Buenos Aires would take a better and stronger position as a trade centre becoming the new capital, meaning Salta would suffer in consequence a decline as a city until around 1930 when newcomers started to arrive.

It is worth seeing the Museo de Arqueologia de Alta Montana, housing the controversial mummies of the Children of Volcano Llullaillaco.
In 1999 National Geographic directed an expedition where they managed to discover the sacred burial of three indigenous children. The mummified bodies of the sacrificed children are shown at the museum along with many objects founded in the burial place.
It is said the children lived 500 years ago, and were given to the gods as sacrificial offerings, on the top of the 6.700 mts mountain.

You can’t miss the Plaza 9 de Julio, with its avocado and orange trees and palm trees; surrounded by cafes where you can have a very nice lunch and enjoy the sun and the birds singing, but you will have to be patient enough with the relentless artesan salesmen…we were approached by almost ten at lunch time.

On the north side of the Plaza you will be able to find the Cathedral built in 1858 with its admirable baroque altar.
If you go out of the building and straight across, you will be standing on the other side of the Plaza facing the memorable Cabildo, built in 1783 where you can find inside the Museo Historico del Norte.

The Mercado Artesanal located in an impressive mansion offers beautiful handicrafts not so cheap as the ones you will find in the tiny village but great quality.

On the way to Cafayate we stopped for a tranquil lunch in Dique Cabra Corral. This is an artificial lake very popular in summer season for fishing pejerrey, practicing water-skiing and camping.
Continuing to the South we found ourselves crossing Quebrada de Las Conchas (“gorge of shells”).
The route runs along extraordinary formations of terracotta rocks moulded by the rain and wind, where you can find the following ones: Garganta del Diablo (Devil’s throat) eroded by the water, El Anfiteatro (the amphitheatre), El Sapo (the toad), El Fraile (the friar), La Casa de los Loros (the parrot’s houses), La Yesera, Los Castillos (the castles) y El Obelisco.

We arrived in Cafayate just in time to watch the impressive sunset from our private terrace at the Cafayate Wine Resort, while testing a wonderful typical wine from the region, the white Torrontes.
Cafayate is a vineyard valley surrounded by mountains, which is becoming increasingly popular for those wanting to blend their wines with a beautiful environment.
We recommend visiting the Museo de la Vid y el Vino, full of history and pieces of old winemaking machines.

On our way to Tafi del Valle, located in the Tucuman province, we hit the impressive Ruinas de Quilmes.
This site represents one of the most important archaeological sites in Argentina; the ruins were discovered by the naturalist Juan Bautista Ambrosetti at the end of 19th century and restored in 1978.
This civilization was the only one to resist the Inca invasions, and continued resisting the Spanish invaders for 130 years more, until being defeated in 1667 when they were relocated 1200km away in south of Buenos Aires.
This journey was made by foot, killing 4000 of Quilmes Indians in the process.
Few Argentines are aware that “Quilmes” was in fact an ancient civilization and not just the name for the most famous beer, as it is popularly believed!

Just when we arrived in Tucuman the weather seemed to change dramatically - becoming cold and humid, as we crossed the high pass we went from high altitude desert to wet damp bofedales. Tafi del Valle is very popular for its microclimate and is a good base for trekking. Indeed only in 1943 you could only get here on horseback.

We stayed in Estancia Las Tacanas, which originally belonged to the Jesuitas and today is run by the family Peña Guzmán. It’s the oldest building in the city and is a fascinating place full of history.

Our next stop was Cachi. On the way we also decided to make a stop in Palo Pintado, where the renowned Argentine artist and curator Sergio Avello made a piece of installation art using huge zigzagging mirrors to reflect the many faces of the valley in myriad ways.

The sun had already set, when we finally arrived in Cachi. We stayed in our new friend Adriana’s house, who received us with empanadas and wine.
Cachi is a beautiful and tranquil hamlet founded in 1694 and located at the foot of the Nevado de Cachi (6.700 m) that flanks it from the west.
You cannot miss the Igleasia San Jose, built in the sixteenth century and the Museo Arqueologico which contains more than 5,000 pieces covering a time period of 10,000 years with a majority covering the time period between 800 BC and 1600 AD. The volunteer curators give an entertaining tour.
On our last night we ate a glorious “asado” made Roberto, a real gaucho. We must admit that eating meat tasted like heaven after spending 10 days with empanadas!

Heading east, we hit the Parque Nacional Los Cardones, a majestic landscape full of thousands of cactus that would lead us to a dead-straight stretch named La Recta del Tin Tin, very well known for its optical illusion of going up when in fact its descending.
We finally got to the craggy Piedra del Molino (3358 m) from where you can have amazing views where the road enters the Quebrada de Escoipe.
We stopped for some bird watching in the lovely Valle Encantado.
The road then snakes down the breathtaking Cuesta del Obispo finally arriving south of Salta – back on the wine plains.

Monday, August 10, 2009

In Darwin's Footsteps

2009 is the year of Charles Darwin. Not only is it the anniversary of his birth but also that of the publication of On the Origin of Species, 50 years later.

In collaboration with Manchester Museum and University, Ben is exhibiting a wonderful collection of images from one of our recent trips in Tierra del Fuego and Patagonia, retracing the steps Darwin took. We’ve taken several clients on hunts for Darwin’s past, and the history of the Beagle is a particular interest of Dominic’s, so it’s great to bring it all together in the amazing Victorian buildings of Manchester University.

What Darwin and Fitz Roy saw as they entered the Beagle Channel and took respite from the storms of the Marie Strait and the circumpolar winds of the Southern Ocean.

Chilean Flamingos surprised Darwin just as they surprise people today.

The realm of The Beagle. A black browed albatross in the fjord that ultimately bore Darwin's name, Seno Darwin.

An antarctic skua patrols the waters before the sharp outline of Mount Olivia. In many of the paintings by The Beagle's artist, Conrad Martens, variations on Mount Olivia's outline appear as symbolic testament to the wildness of Tierra del Fuego...

Midsummer snows. One of the most exciting things about visiting Tierra del Fuego is that you simply don't know from one day to the next whether you'll be sauntering in the sunshine and getting a tan, or braving the snow and katabatic winds.

The exhibition opens in September. Drop us an email if you would like some information.

More of the shots can be viewed on the gallery on our website.

Friday, February 29, 2008

The Rodeo at Villa Llanquin.

You wouldn´t guess it was only half an hour downstream from the chocolate shops and kitesurfing spots of Bariloche.

Firstly, you have to cross the river. Two cars at a time (or one car and several horses) go on a small wooden raft (they call it a balsa here and the wood isn't so different). Next, a guy with very large biceps pulls it across the water on a steel cable. By hand. Then, you follow the river out of the village, looking for the stands of lombardy poplars, imported from France, that mark any important site; in this case, the corral.

Dust swirls and the poplars bend in supplication to winds that beat across the steppe. Maté, beer and box wine are drunk to excess, barbaques are set up in car boots, horses run amok, and the famous Uruguayo singer surveys the scene, and improvises his commentary accordingly.

As the only foreigner present I am dubiously honoured with an improvised song about the Falklands. Apparently they don't belong to the English Crown.

And the rodeo runs on, 'til the horses are spent and the sun deflates into the western rim of the valley, setting its sandstone towers aflame, and the guy with the biceps cantilevers hundreds of Ford Falcons, Renault 4s and Citroen Amis back across the gin clear waters of the Limay.

(All images Dominic Hall. Click image for full size view)

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Patagonia in words

It struck me recently that there is very little modern literature on Patagonia.

Bruce Chatwin did a good job both romanticising and objurgating the place on his whirlwind tour, as well as winding up the locals with his foppish Oxford pretensions and fictional journalism. Nevertheless, his In Patagonia is fascinating in its study and contemplation of exile. As Chatwin says, ´if the world blew up tomorrow, you would still find in Patagonia an astonishing cross section of the world's nationalities´. The real history of Patagonia, is the history of everywhere else.

The most thorough job, ironically, was the first. A certain Mr Darwin came down here, looked at the place with youthful vigour and perception, then headed back and never left the Home Counties for the rest of his life. His Voyage of the Beagle licenced everything that came after. And those days spent geologising in Puerto Deseado and San Julián, and taming the Tehuelche Indians in the Beagle Channel, were as critical as his Galapagos finches in progressing his nascent idea, that from the comfort of the drawing room in Kent, would eventually become his very big idea.
Darwin spent 5 weeks in the Galapagos. And 2 years in Patagonia.

W H Hudson is Patagonia's unsung chronicler. He had by far the best sense of the place, but no one reads him and his books are out of print. If you can find them, check out ´Idle Days in Patagonia´ and ´Long Ago and Far Away´. Hudson had Darwin´s sense of detail, and Thoreau's philosophy. Jorge Luis Borges didn´t quite see the value of this, and had a thing or two to say about it: ´You will find nothing there. There is nothing in Patagonia. That´s why Hudson liked it.´

More recently of course, there have been the cursory forays into the Patagonian literary landscape by various adventurers; cycling from Cape Horn to Alaska, walking from Cape Horn to Alaska, driving a 1920s Model T from Cape Horn to Alaska, and inumerable more versions of the same rather unoriginal theme.

Less vainglorious adventurers had already made these journeys and written about them. Waterstone's travel section would do better to stock Lady Florence Dixie´s Across Patagonia, Colonel George Musters´ At Home with the Patagonians, George Shevlocke´s A Voyage Around the World, JB Hatcher´s Bone Hunters, Miguel de Larminat's A Pioneer in Patagonia, amongst others. All of these are worth reading. John Byron´s (yes, the grandfather of the poet) account of his shipwreck in the Chilean fjords, The Loss of the Wager will transform your own experience of sailing through the very same channels.

Many ecologists and naturalists have also followed Darwin's precedent and written about the wild side of Patagonia, and Argentine and Chilean historians have dealt with the human, with varying degrees of anachronism, bias, and makebelieve. Patricia Halvorsen (those of you who have stayed at her estancia La Quinta will know her) has written almost singlehandedly the history of Santa Cruz, some of the books of which have made it into English.

But, perhaps the best places to find the literary Patagonia are also the most unexpected. Shakespeare's The Tempest, Coleridge's Rhime of the Ancient Mariner, Conan Doyle's Lost World, and Antonio Pigafetta. Even Poe's the Narrative of Pym was based on a voyage into Patagonia, in this case Captain James Weddell's. Which in turn inspired Baudelaire's Le Voyage.

And it does not stop there. For all the books based on Patagonia, in a strange literary reversal, Patagonia itself was based on a book. Primaleon of Greece was a romping Medieval saga concerning knights, dragons and princesses. It also happened to be published only a few years before Magellan´s voyage, and was almost certainly read by him. Its principal baddy was a giant ´puppy headed monster´, to paraphrase Caliban in the Tempest, called Patagon... And therein lies the name.

For all Chatwin's misperceptions about Patagonia, he had the last word on its literary origins.

´I think we have here a situation in which a bad novel inspired a great explorer to do something shoddy, which in turn, inspired the greatest playwright to one of his greatest creations.´

Either way, good airport reading....

Saturday, November 24, 2007


Our spring photograghy tour has begun. The days are divided in two, shooting at 6am and 10pm, such is the austral summer light. Pictures are rolling in. Here's a taster.

Bandurria over Cerro Catedral at sundown.

Caranchos at Ibera.

Shooting from horseback. The monopod replaces the traditional gaucho whip.

For more images, check out our gallery at

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Las Malvinas / The Falklands

With the 25th anniversary of the Falklands / Malvinas war, there's been a plethora of rekindled interest.
Illuminados por el Fuego won best film at Robert De Niro's Tribeca Film Festival. It was pipped to the post at the uber-prestigious San Sebastian Film Festival (much to the audience's dismay, apparently).

Next in line for cinematic recreation are Pacino and Streep, to play Galtieri and Thatcher, respectively...;-) The film 'The Iron Lady' will focus on the 14 days prior to the invasion. Pathe and the BBC agreed to fund it after the recent success of 'The Queen'.

Unsurprisingly, interest in the war is much stronger in Argentina than in Britain. Buenos Aires is full of photographic exhibitions exploring the war and a spate of documentaries have been
recently broadcast.

Conversely, a quick poll in the UK revealed many people thought the Falklands were in Scotland....

That said, there has been much sharing of experiences between the two countries in remembrance of a war that should never have happened.

April 2nd, Buenos Aires, 25 years later.